John Leo
John Leo
Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police
ISBN: 076580400X
Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police
John Leo talked about his book, "Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police." This book, a collection of his columns from U.S. News and World Report, deals with the origins and agenda of so-called "political correctness," its aspects of racism, censorship, and its detrimental effects, including repression and division, especially on college campuses.
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TRANSCRIPT
Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police
Program Air Date: August 28, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: John Leo, author of Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police, a group of essays, where did that title come from?
JOHN LEO: My assistant, Beverly Larson, thought it up. I was looking for something that would reflect what I was talking about, not too brisk but a little bit jaunty, that showed that I had tried to write about serious things in a light way, and I liked it right away.
LAMB: The Thought Police -- who would they be?
LEO: I'm talking about political correctness there. A lot of the columns are about correctness, particularly on campus, which I consider pretty much a disaster in America.
LAMB: Why is that happening?
LEO: It's organized around the principle of racial and gender equality, which I presume we're all for, but it amounts to a kind of repressive attempt to tell people what to think. Beyond that, it's organized around a radical ideology. I don't use that as a name-calling adjective; it really is radical. It goes to the root of what America's all about; it insists that there's no mainstream; it plugs into multiculturalism and insists that we're all warring tribes. In the PC lexicon, there is no mainstream; there is no commonality in America. It always looks for differences, and it divides us. I think when you put the division together with the repression of trying to tell people what to think and having codes that you can enforce, you have trouble.
LAMB: If you wanted to go to the most PC university or college in America, where would you go?
LEO: I think it would be Stanford. Stanford is not only a great university, but it's the most riddled with PC notions. There are a lot of them, but Stanford seems to uphold the flag.
LAMB: Where does it come from?
LEO: I think it grows out of the desire, frustrated desire, to impose racial and gender equality, and it uses committees of virtuous people to tell you how to do it and how to think and what to do. On the Sarah Lawrence campus this past spring term, a male student was brought up on charges of inappropriate laughter. That couldn't have happened 10 years ago. This only took off beginning with the rally at Stanford that Jesse Jackson led, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture has to go." It has been anti-Western, anti-white guy, anti-European; it insists that the West has been engaged in nothing but rapine and pillage for the last thousand years and that all other cultures are better and have to supplant the rootedness in Western culture. It's radical to that extent, that it really does want to go back to the foundations of America and rewrite what's happened here.
LAMB: If you weren't white and male, would you feel the same way about this?
LEO: I hope so, because the people who object to it aren't all white and male. Again, my approach is no repression; let's look at what we have in common. When you balkanize you get, as you have on many college campuses, you get not only repressive codes but you have all-black dorms, all-white dorms, all-gay dorms -- this is crazy stuff; this is splitting us apart and carrying the flag of oppression. If you see everything through the lens of oppression, you will always divide the world into us against them. I think ultimately that's what PC does; it has no room in its canon for moral suasion. The story I like is, on one college campus -- I forget which campus it is -- they were harassing two gay guys, and instead of bringing them up on code charges and having sensitivity training, the kids simply put a long petition on the door saying, "Leave these guys alone." It was signed by a couple hundred students, and that was the end of it. And that's the way communities react -- they use moral arguments, and they meet problems head-on; they don't call in the thought police to tell people what to think and bring them up on charges.
LAMB: When did this start?
LEO: I think it started in the late `80s; at least that's when I first noticed it. I think, in retrospect, it was a set of `60s ideas that went underground, and we didn't notice how much progress they were making until they burst above ground in the late `80s. If you look at the PC ideology, it's a kind of revised version of Marxism. Just as Marx thought that the ideas we have are by-products of privilege and economics, the PC people will argue that, that you and I say the things we say and study the things we study because they maintain our privilege and the only way to get back at the privileged people is to overthrow them. My approach is assimilationist, that we assimilated dozens and dozens of ethnic groups and reached out to the poor, one generation after another. My family -- Irish on one side, Italian on the other -- came here with nothing and worked hard and made it into the middle class, and I don't see why everyone else can't, if they work hard and get a break, too. So I think the assimilationists, the people who want to stress what we have in common, are fighting the people who sees things through the lens of oppression and want to have a cultural war.
LAMB: The cover here has a picture of someone -- it's a black-and-white picture, running somewhere with a briefcase. Do you know who it is?
LEO: It looks to me like it might be Cary Grant; I'm not sure. The salesmen say they like it because they rarely get an action cover -- a guy running in a three-piece suit is an action cover.
LAMB: It's not you.
LEO: No, it's not me.
LAMB: How many essays in here?
LEO: I think it's 114.
LAMB: Where were they originally published?
LEO: Most of them were in U.S. News & World Report, and I'm also syndicated by Universal Press. The others are from different magazines or unpublished.
LAMB: How much did you have to say about what essays went in here?
LEO: I picked them; I thought these were the best ones to put in.
LAMB: How much did you have to say about the chapter headings?
LEO: I did that myself. It's kind of a free-lance approach at Simon & Schuster.
LAMB: One that kicks off Part 1: "Ask the Dunderheads." Who are the dunderheads?
LEO: That's the famous biennial art show at the Whitney. Two years ago the Whitney had its big show, and to get in you had to pay $6. As a receipt you get a little button to put in your lapel, and the button says, "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white." So here we go. It's an anti-Western, anti-white, anti-straight show full of ersatz art that's just angry attacks, and you have to wear a button that's racist when worn by non-whites and self-loathing when worn by whites. Instead of bringing us together, we make people wear little racist buttons now. The whole show -- I end with quotes from the catalogue saying, showing quite clearly that they want to overthrow the mainstream, and I asked, "Why is the Whitney, an institution of the center, out to do itself in?" And I said, "Ask the dunderheads at the Whitney." So that's the first chapter heading.
LAMB: Part 2: "Let's Get Back to English: Language and Word Games People Play."
LEO: I love to write about language. When I was at Time 10 years ago, I started doing essays on journalese, the little cliches and weird constructions that we in the press resort to, including make-believe hyphenated terms that have no meaning at all like "blue-ribbon panel," "tree-lined streets." In the whole history of journalism, there's never been a street that hasn't been described as "tree-lined." And how the little code words that tell us what to think about things -- if they tell you that a politician has his ups and downs, they're hinting that he's manic-depressive. This is the journalese way of getting into the insults. So, anyhow, I do a lot of language essays. I have a little fun with George Bush's collision with the English language in there and other word games that people play.
LAMB: Where do you live today?
LEO: I live in the Village, in Manhattan.
LAMB: Why did you pick the Village?
LEO: I've been there 20 years. I like the tolerance, the openness, the differences of the Village. If you have to live in Manhattan, the Village has the most friendly low-rise culture on the island.
LAMB: Someone that has never been to Manhattan or the Village -- what is it?
LEO: Greenwich Village was an independent village in the early days; in fact, the denizens of New York City used to go by carriage to Greenwich Village for weekending. It's only two miles from City Hall, but that was, I guess, a big trip then. And it's laid out with streets that break the grid pattern, and it has a famous literary culture -- Edna St. Vincent Millay, Henry James, Mark Twain, all kinds of people. There are plaques everywhere, which makes people feel good that some creativity blossomed there. It has a tradition of bohemianism; it's a totally square, middle-class place now, but it has its tradition of openness and acceptance that makes it a pleasant place to live. And because of the low-rise buildings, you have more chance of getting to know or see people you know on the streets. I just find it a much more congenial community to live in.
LAMB: "Totally square, middle-class place" to live.
LEO: Sure, anybody who goes to the Village now and expects to see Eugene O'Neill or Dylan Thomas staggering around drunk is in for a disappointment. It isn't that kind of place anymore. The property values go up and you get burghers like myself moving in, and you don't have colorful have-nots and brilliant creative artists; you just have square, middle-class people.
LAMB: Would you put a label on the Village politically these days?
LEO: The politics of the Village has always been left, and it is. That's basically what it is.
LAMB: What are your politics?
LEO: I guess my politics are moderate to right, somewhere in there.
LAMB: Do they tolerate your moderate politics?
LEO: Oh, they tolerate even people like me, sure.
LAMB: Is the Village politically correct?
LEO: Yes, there's some of it. There's some of it there, but basically the Village is old-fashioned reform Democrat in orientation. It isn't as much PC as the rest of the country or the universities, in particular.
LAMB: Part 3 of this book is "How Does the Bather Know When to Scream? Community Rights and Family."
LEO: Another of my brisk little chapter headings. That comes from a quote from Marshall McLuhan. I studied under McLuhan when I was in college, and he asked, "If the temperature of the bath water goes up a half a degree every three minutes, how does the bather know when to scream?" I was using that as a lead-in to Moynihan's essay "Defining Deviancy Down" in the American Scholar. Moynihan, for some reason, published this with a jaw-breaking title in a very erudite magazine, and some of us had to go in there -- Bill Raspberry first and then myself -- drag it out and explain what he meant. It became a big hit because what Moynihan was saying was what McLuhan was saying, that we have adjusted ourselves to more and more horror in our culture, more and more violence. We think it's an everyday event when little kids get shot at by drug dealers in the inner city, and we think it's normal to have a staggering rate of illegitimacy. We have got accustomed to this, and Moynihan's theory is that anything that overwhelms you will eventually come to seem normal or you couldn't get on with your life. He was saying, instead of defining deviancy down, making it more normal, we should define it up and get angry again and try to solve the problems.
LAMB: Who's doing the redefining?
LEO: Well, you can either look at it in psychological or sociological terms. I would use sociological terms, that we're so overwhelmed by aberrant behavior that we don't see it as aberrant anymore; we've just come to say, "Well, that's just a normal night in New York City. Three or four people are murdered every day." If that happened at that rate 10 years ago, there'd be headlines all over the papers, but now it's just a normal day. That's how deviancy gets defined down. You come to expect a certain level of disruption.
LAMB: Marshall McLuhan was -- is he still alive?
LEO: No, McLuhan died a few years ago. He had his 15 minutes of fame. He is referred to in journalese as communications theorist Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was really right about a lot of things. Those of us who thought he was onto something were known as McLunatics at the University of Toronto, where I went and where he taught. But basically he said that any new medium, any one of the many new media that come along, will totally disrupt the society and produce a new personality type, and we're seeing it now and we saw it with print. Basically, if you apply McLuhan's analysis to the electronic media, you're saying that everything that print produces is now on the way out. In McLuhan terms, print produces privacy, a linear approach to things, a logical, orderly approach to things and sequence. The electronic media breaks all that down. There is no left to right; there is no sequence. In the electronic media everything's all at once, and if it isn't all at once, it's -- there's no sense to the sequence. You see a killing in Vietnam, you see an ad, you see a puppy story in the news -- it's just a jumble of things happening. McLuhan predicted that each new media would change the world, and I think he's right.
LAMB: What year did you sit in front of him?
LEO: I had him for a modern poetry seminar in my senior year in college in 1957. And it went something like this -- he said, "You people are all seniors; you know all about modern poetry by now." Then he was off talking about some set of theories that weren't on the course at all. So we got a lot of McLuhan's theories but very little of him on post-Yeats poets.
LAMB: Did he have an impact on you?
LEO: Sure. I think he's right about that. I think McLuhan forces us to think how important the media are to the culture and what they do to the culture. People are always up in arms about the content of the media -- too much violence or too much nudity. But McLuhan said, it isn't the content that will do you in; it's the form of each medium itself. "The medium is the message" was his cliche, aphorism. What he meant by that is, don't worry about the content. The content is always the old medium. When the movies came along they thought they were stage plays, and they kept presenting movies as stage presentations. They didn't know that the form demands action; it breaks the proscenium arch; it's a whole different approach. Anyhow, McLuhan understood that when the electronic media came, that it would produce what he called the "global village," that just as CNN, C-SPAN are binding us together, all around the country, all around the world, we no longer have the privacy of individual print cultures. We're going to have a universal language; it will be electronic language.
LAMB: Were you happier when there was less electronic . . .
LEO: Oh, sure. I'm an old-fashioned print guy. It's hard for me to adjust, but I'm trying to do it.
LAMB: Where's it going?
LEO: I don't know. If we had gurus to tell us that, we'd all be prepared, but I do think that there's a great leveling going on, that the whole direction of the culture is to break down hierarchies, that just as in the press traditionally you had an editing function -- the editors would tell you what you had to know, and they would rank it by hierarchy -- the upper right was the most important story of the day on Page 1 and then the next seven stories in order, and then inside everything would be ranked in order of importance. It's not ranked anymore; we don't get our news that way. We get our news through bulletins, through headline services, from computers, and a lot of the news is pumped in from below -- individuals calling in, people with videotape cameras watching police brutality. All these things are bubbling up from the people, creating their own news, tabloids responding to pressure from below. It really has wrecked the news business. At least the old framework of "we'll tell you what you're about to read," which has both good and bad aspects, is now gone. The New York Times is hearing from the tabloids and from the tabloid TV shows what it should put on its front page.
LAMB: Have you changed your relationship with the reader over the years because of the way this is changing?
LEO: No, I think not. You see, first of all I think that this cuts both ways. The more that we are bombarded with a democratic set of media that doesn't care what you want, that just hits you with the stuff, the more people look for outposts that they trust to chew over then news, to give them a viewpoint that they trust. When they read me, whether they agree with me or not, they know that I'm going to have a certain take on the news and that I will say exactly what I think without taking myself seriously. I think it gives people a kind of signpost. I don't want to overrate how important I am; I'm just saying that the more confusing the media get, the more people like to have a source of analysis that they know they can get a bead on.
LAMB: How many words do you write a week, and where can people find you?
LEO: Eight hundred words, and I'm in every week toward the front of U.S. News & World Report, and I'm in some newspapers, too.
LAMB: Is there a guide for you? Is there something that every week you look for to distinguish your commentary from everybody else.
LEO: I try not to write on the issue of the week. First of all, I write about the culture; I rarely write about politics -- I do it once in a while. My theory is, we already have 400 people in Washington writing about what Secretary X said to Senator Y that day, so I assume that that service is provided for Americans and for the Beltway and for the political class. I try to write about what I think is disturbing and new about the culture, whether they're political movements or what's on TV or how movies are being put together or feminism or trends that I see. I think people respond to that because they don't see regular commentary on the culture, and I try to do that.
LAMB: Part 5 is "A Cloak of Silence and Denial: Race, Ethnicity and Immigration."
LEO: Right. That's an arbitrary category of essays I wrote about Native Americans, a lot about race, immigration, which I'm for -- I think New York City's entirely dependent on immigrants to revive itself. It's a whole category of articles and things I have to say about race. I have very severe doubts about affirmative action; I think it has allied itself with the PC movement and created a furtive culture on campus, where the culture now on campus is not allowed to talk about affirmative action. To raise any doubts about it, whether you're black or white or whatever, is to be deemed racist, and that threat of being called racist keeps it undiscussed. So I think that great pressure is building up in the culture to have an honest discussion about affirmative action.
LAMB: You write about minority kids admitted to Harvard but not going because somebody pays them more money to go somewhere else. What's that about?
LEO: I think this is a disaster. First of all, a lot of white kids are getting the impression that the black kids, and sometimes Hispanic kids, don't have to meet any standards. Whether it's right or wrong, that feeling is growing, and it's driving the races further apart on college campuses. The very campuses which we would expect to be better on race, the elite liberal colleges, are having the most trouble with race. And why would that be? They come from homes with liberal parents who are open to racial change, and they go to these colleges and they come out -- a lot of them come out embittered or dubious about the other race. We've seen the movement of black kids from elite colleges back to historically black colleges. Now, what's that all about? I mean, something's going on here that we can't quite track, and the white kids make the charge that, in some colleges at least, that blacks can't fail, that having brought blacks to the campus at great cost both in money and emotional cost, that the colleges have put out the word that they shouldn't be allowed to fail. Now, I have no way of knowing if that's true. Some professors tell me that they've been told not to fail the black youngsters because -- you know, they come from disadvantaged backgrounds; don't hold them to the same standards. As soon as you have side by side -- Andrew Hacker wrote this in the New York Review of Books a couple of years ago -- he said, "If you look at the Berkeley freshman class, you have two colleges here. You have high-achieving Asian-Americans and whites, and you have unprepared blacks and Hispanics sharing the same campus." They have nothing in common. One group is overqualified for Berkeley, the other group is distinctly, on the whole, underqualified, but because Berkeley, the flagship of the entire California system, has said that Berkeley can't go on not having a large percentage of blacks and Hispanics, a lot of unprepared kids have been thrown in with the prepared blacks and Hispanics, and now you've got a built-in rift in every freshman class here because preparedness tends to break down along racial lines.
LAMB: Why are they not prepared?
LEO: I think it is because they come from disadvantaged homes, often broken homes or no-father homes. In the Hispanic cases, they're held back further by not knowing the language. I would like to see a more organized way of getting disadvantaged kids up to speed before they step on the elite college campuses. I think that there ought to be a nationwide movement for voluntary contributions for a couple years of prep school and bring them up to speed so they can step on the campus saying, "I can take anything they throw at me here," and not feeling, "Oh, gosh, it's a new environment, it's a white environment, and what is the professor talking about? He's way over my head." They panic because they're expected to hit the ground running and they can't. They don't come from that kind of preparation.
LAMB: Part 6 is "Protecting a Roomful of Fruit From Venereal Disease: Our Wayward Schools."
LEO: That refers to sex lessons in the schools that parents know nothing about. A friend of mine said that his 11-year-old -- I guess 9-year-old daughter then -- had come home and said, "Dad, we put condoms on bananas in our class." Well, you know, I suppose sex classes are inevitable, but you would think that fifth and sixth graders would have a chance to hear it from parents or mothers and fathers first before they know about condoms and bananas courtesy of the school system. That was a private school. At least he has the chance to yank his daughter out of a school that does that, but in public schools a lot of strange sex education is proceeding apace with parents cut out of the loop, and I just think that's terribly unfair and undemocratic as well. The parents pay the bills; they should know what kind of sex education their kids are getting.
LAMB: How do you tell them, or how do you get them involved?
LEO: What happens is, I think that the schools try very hard to keep the parents out of the loop. I think they tend to view parents as buttinskys, as part of the past generation, as a problem. You find more and more parents don't know what's happening in the sex-ed classes. They don't want to tell the parents.
LAMB: Part 8 of your book is "Just Another Marlboro Man From Outer Space."
LEO: That's the Bridges of -- whatever it was, the runaway best seller.
LAMB: Madison County.
LEO: Yes, which I guess was a book. It was described as a book; I thought it was kind of like a long Hallmark card. But I thought the character in that was hilarious. He was on the one hand a Marlboro man; he was a tough, no-nonsense Western hero. On the other hand, he was this environmental activist who quoted Yeats and deferred to women as if he was not a Marlboro man. I thought the character was very peculiarly drawn to embrace every conceivable male stereotype, and I guess that's why it sold.
LAMB: It sold something like 3 million copies.
LEO: Yes.
LAMB: Only 140-some pages -- $14 or something like that?
LEO: Yes, must have struck a chord, particularly with women. Obviously it did.
LAMB: Did you talk to anybody that ever read it?
LEO: Yes, I talked to a few people who read it because I forced them to when I was going to write about it. They were baffled by it, too. I don't get it. I think there's a kind of frustrated romantic sense of longing that people responded to in that book. I also thought, if you're going to celebrate adultery in 1993 in America, you'd better surround it with a lot of conservative, old-fashioned values, and they did that in the book. The hero, who's going for another guy's wife, is talking about how people don't live up to their obligations anymore, they don't keep their word, and you have the covered bridges and the screen door. All these emblems of an older, more staid America are invoked to justify this affair. And of course she goes back to the husband and says if she hadn't had the affair she wouldn't have been able to stay around and raise her kids. So once again -- this is some magical affair; it makes her more faithful to her husband.
LAMB: The foreword of this book is written by Peter Jennings.
LEO: Yes, Peter's a pal. I really love Peter; he wrote as much as he could say on my behalf there without endangering his neutrality as an anchor.
LAMB: Why did he do it?
LEO: Well, he likes me, and he reads me every week. You'd better quote the last line there, Brian, where he . . .
LAMB: "I have borrowed from John more than once."
LEO: Yes, it's a very handsome thing to say. He says that he reads me every week and that he has developed stories out of my column, which is quite a compliment, I think.
LAMB: He says also, "He even has a devoted following among those of us who think he's sometimes off-base."
LEO: Yes, I didn't chide him about that, lumping himself with my detractors, but I think he agrees with some and disagrees with some. It's a free country, even in ABC.
LAMB: You also had an article written about you recently in Vanity Fair.
LEO: Yes.
LAMB: For those who didn't see it, it was called "Leo Rising." "With his new book, Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police, John Leo first standard-bearer of the politically incorrects, seals his status as cult columnist of the intelligentsia."
LEO: That was a very nice thing to say, so I'm glad they said it. I'm a little embarrassed by the praise, but it's nice.
LAMB: Do you like being a "cult columnist of the intelligentsia"?
LEO: Well, I tell you, the fact that I'm some sort of secret in journalism did not go down well with the editors of U.S. News & World Report, who were under the impression that they put out several million copies a week and that nothing in the magazine can be considered a secret. So I think that's a Washington-New York problem, that New York doesn't read anything that comes out of Washington and vice versa.
LAMB: "He has become the secret pleasure of smart, powerful, well-connected members of the cultural elite."
LEO: Well, that's that word "secret."
LAMB: What is the cultural elite?
LEO: It's one of those terms you can use however you wish. I use the term slightly differently. I think the writer of that article -- Elise O'Shaughnessy -- meant it to refer to people in the media who try to keep up with events. I consider the cultural elite mostly to be the politics of the left in social and political and press circles. I make my living by challenging things that occur in the cultural elite, so there's a difference on what that term actually means.
LAMB: And she says -- by the way, who is she?
LEO: Elise O'Shaughnessy is the executive editor of Vanity Fair.
LAMB: Did she interview you for this?
LEO: Yes, she did.
LAMB: "He travels in that literati glitterati world, but he's a little ill at ease."
LEO: I don't want to criticize such a favorable article, but literati glitterati means a bunch of reporters who play soft ball on weekends in the Hamptons. We're hardly glitterati; we're reporters and dentists and artists and a few other people who have a weekly softball game. If that's what the reference is to, I don't think we glitter very much.
LAMB: I was struck by the list because almost all of them have been on "Booknotes." Ken Auletta, Robert Sam Anson -- who was not -- Mort Zuckerman, Walter Isaacson, Avery Corman, Wilfrid Sheed -- who are all these folks?
LEO: They're writers. Avery is the well-known novelist who did Kramer vs. Kramer and The Old Neighborhood. Walter Isaacson is a heavyweight at Time Inc. and was a writer there with me. Zuckerman is the owner, as you know, of U.S. News & World Report and the Daily News and of the Atlantic, and Robert Sam Anson is a fine writer. Auletta, of course, is the author of Three Blind Mice and many other books; he writes for the New Yorker now. But we're just a bunch of typists who play softball. Let's not overdo the glitter.
LAMB: What's Sag Harbor?
LEO: Sag Harbor's a little village out on Long Island; it's basically structured like a whaling village in New England. It was a whaling village in the 1840s, and it's filled with nice little houses. Betty Friedan lives there and Richard Reeves and a whole bunch of people, and it's where we play our softball game.
LAMB: You met your wife there.
LEO: Yes, she showed up for the first game. She was the only woman who's ever played center field on our team. She can really go get fly balls. She's a good athlete -- Jackie Leo.
LAMB: And how long ago did you get married?
LEO: That was 19 years ago -- our game is 19 years old. We married in `78 and have an 11-year-old daughter, Alexandra.
LAMB: Where were you born?
LEO: Hoboken, NJ, where the boats dropped the immigrants off.
LAMB: What were the early years like?
LEO: I grew up in the Jersey suburbs. As soon as my parents could get a couple bucks together, they moved to the wilds of Bergen County, N.J., then mostly farmland. With my father's great industry, we sort of disappeared into the middle class rather rapidly, which is an amazing achievement with no money to get the whole family and five kids into the middle class and through college. I honor my dad for that achievement.
LAMB: You say your father was Italian.
LEO: No, my father was Irish. Leo is one of those hidden Irish names. He always thought it was Spanish or Armada Irish, perhaps a contraction of De Leo, of survivors of the Armada's destruction.
LAMB: But your mother was Irish -- Italian.
LEO: My mother was Italian -- Princilito.
LAMB: What kind of a career did both of them have?
LEO: My mother didn't have any career; she stayed at home with the kids. She taught grammar school every now and then, and Dad was a mid-level executive in a stainless-steel kitchen equipment company.
LAMB: And where did you go to high school?
LEO: I went to Regis High School, a Jesuit school in Manhattan, and then the University of Toronto.
LAMB: Why did you pick Toronto?
LEO: Because in 1952 when I got out of Regis, the Jesuits would not send my transcript to a non-Catholic college. It didn't occur to us -- we were all the sons of immigrants -- to challenge this. There was no ACLU mentality, but the Jesuits felt we should go to Catholic colleges so I just played along with the system. The University of Toronto is of high ivy caliber and it has a Catholic college in it, so I had them send my transcript there.
LAMB: Would you have picked another school?
LEO: Oh, sure. The trouble with Regis is, Regis is the all-scholarship, top-end Jesuit school in New York -- I think in the East -- and all the kids that should have gone to Harvard or MIT wound up going to Fordham and Manhattan. Well, they're good colleges, but they should have had the option to go to what they called then secular colleges.
LAMB: And you studied?
LEO: Philosophy and English.
LAMB: What did you do after school?
LEO: I wandered into a newspaper office in Hackensack, NJ, right next to Teaneck, where I grew up -- the Bergen Record -- and I wandered in during the summer and said, "Do you have any jobs?" And they said, "Sit here." In a half an hour I was typing obits, and I guess I was hired, so -- nowadays you've got to stand on line for years to get jobs at the Record, but in those days they just took you right off the street. So I covered crime and violence and sex and trials for three years and went elsewhere.
LAMB: Where next?
LEO: I edited a Catholic weekly in Davenport, Iowa, the Catholic Messenger, which was then the most liberal Catholic paper and the paper of record. We interviewed a lot of people and challenged a lot of received wisdom, and we had a lot of impact. After that I was hired by Commonweal, which was the lay Catholic weekly; in other words, it's owned by individual Catholics, not by the church itself. I was there three years, and the Times hired me. The Times wanted me to be religion editor and I said no, so they hired me to cover the social sciences instead. I had no background at all in the social sciences, but it was a good job.
LAMB: The New York Times?
LEO: Yes.
LAMB: How long did you work there?
LEO: Three years there, too.
LAMB: Go back to the Catholic magazines. What had you interested in that?
LEO: I wandered into the Catholic world. I was a believer, but I wasn't a ferverino. I wasn't eager to be a professional Catholic. That's why I didn't take the religion editor job at the Times. I just wandered into this job in Iowa, enjoyed it a lot, and then Commonweal hired me, and before you knew it I had a syndicated column in the Catholic press. I was the official brash young man. I remember socking it to Cardinal Spellman a few times, and this wasn't done in those days. When I won awards, they usually were given by Cardinal Spellman in New York, and he didn't show up the year I won, so it was a terrible tragedy.
LAMB: Who was Cardinal Spellman?
LEO: Cardinal Spellman was the most important person in the Catholic Church in those days. It was a long career. He went from the `40s right up to the `70s -- no, in `68, I think, he died. He pretty much called the shots; he had a relationship with the pope that made him really the pope of the American church.
LAMB: Wasn't he conservative?
LEO: He was quite conservative, but it was a different era then. He pulled out all stops to get the movie "Baby Doll" banned. I forget what the offense was; I think it might have used the word "rape." That was a different era then. Anyhow, I entered the Catholic press almost by accident, and when I came out I said, I don't want to do this for a living; I don't want to be a pious type all my life.
LAMB: Were you a different political persuasion when you wrote for Commonweal?
LEO: Yes, I was under the impression that I was a liberal, although I still think the principles I have now which, I guess, are on the right -- they are on the right -- the principles I had then are the same ones I have now. I'm baffled by this; I think the world has changed. If you were for integration and for telling the truth on religious matters and for openness and racial justice, you were a liberal then, but if you have the same set of ideas but you think things have gone too far and repression has become a gift of the left, then I guess you're a conservative. It's somewhat surprising, but I don't think my views are illiberal on as many issues as my detractors do.
LAMB: How do you feel about Catholicism today?
LEO: I drifted away from the church, not knowing exactly why. They certainly were wrong about birth control. I agree with the church on abortion. I don't want to impose my will on anybody, but I do have great moral compunctions about abortions. But I think the birth-control decision when Pope Paul sort of laid down the law and said that all sex has to be procreative in nature, I thought that was a great turning point for the church.
LAMB: You went three years with the New York Times. About how old were you when you left there?
LEO: Let's see, I was, I think, 35.
LAMB: Where did you go?
LEO: I drifted around. I joined Sid Zion and Warren Hinckle in an effort to start a radical magazine called Scanlon's Monthly, which didn't turn out too well. Then I worked as a commissioner in the city government in the City of New York as environmental commissioner.
LAMB: Peter Collier was on this program recently, and he was an editor of Ramparts magazine at one time -- so was Warren Hinckle. Warren Hinckle now has a magazine way on the left, I guess, called Argonaut.
LEO: Right. I saw the Collier show; it was a good show. He was making the same point that I am making here -- I thought he was, anyway -- that his break from the left was because the left had changed, not because he had changed. And he said it was very much like leaving the church, that he couldn't accept the doctrines that were being imposed.
LAMB: The reason I brought it up is I wanted to know what happens to the same people in the same movement -- the Warren Hinckles and the John Leos sitting next to each other, and all of a sudden you split. Have you ever talked about this?
LEO: I don't see Hinckle that much, but apparently he's at it again. He's starting a new magazine. I've seen it; it's small and quarterly sized. I see Sid Zion a lot around; he was at my book party. So I see the same old faces.
LAMB: But do you know what it is that causes the split in the road? Have you ever talked about that -- why did you go this way and he went the other?
LEO: I think it's a different world. It's very hard to pinpoint, but my upset with political correctness is not because of the principles behind it -- as I say, racial and gender equality. It's because of the intolerance, repression and manipulation that's behind the movement. Anybody who tries to bring up a student on charges of laughing inappropriately is not living in the real world. I mean, you don't do that to people. What you do is, you try to reason it out and talk it out, and you work against repression and censorship, use of speech codes not only to stop racial slurs but, frankly, to keep certain professors from raising certain issues. It's a repressive idea. So I was against repression and censorship then and known as a liberal. So now if you're for it you tend to be conservative.
LAMB: Fill in the blanks. We've missed some years in there. How long have you been with U.S. News?
LEO: After I left the City of New York, I went to Time. I was at Time for 13 years, basically doing the same thing I did at the Times -- social trends, behavior, psychology, sociology, that sort of thing. It was called the "Behavior" section at Time. I did some essays and humor, but it was basically the behavior section.
LAMB: And when did you go to U.S. News?
LEO: And then I went to U.S. News six years ago.
LAMB: This is what book?
LEO: That's the second collection; it's the first from U.S. News' columns, and it's all the columns that I liked a lot from the last four or five years.
LAMB: Let me open it up again and go to another section here, "Who Killed Feminism? Sex, Harassment, Rape and Ideology."
LEO: The title comes from a spate of journalism that broke out about a year ago reacting against the rise of anti-male feminism. I think it was a headline on a piece by Sally Quinn in the Washington Post -- I'm not sure. But basically I agree with Sally and many other people who are feminists that victimization has really taken over the feminist movement, that the emphasis now is more on gender warfare and men are beasts than it is on building alliances. I keep describing myself as a "Betty Friedan feminist." Friedan wrote a book -- I think it was 1982, called A Second Stage -- and her thesis was, "Enough sniping. Let's put it back together again now. No, it's not going to be put back together the way it was, but we can form a new alliance based on equality for women, that what women basically want is equality in the home, in the culture and on the job and that let's form an alliance on that." But she lost out; the victim feminism arose and starting to talk about the patriarchy, and before you knew it they were having anti-rape rallies at Princeton and other places, where men were not allowed to attend because they're representatives of the raping class. Well, this is not the direction to go in. It's not because I'm a white guy that I say this; it's because if you want peace between the sexes, if you want the next generation to come together without bitterness, you have to find some common ground between the sexes just as you do between the races.
LAMB: Part 10 is "This Orgy of Non-Killing: Abortion, Ethics and Law."
LEO: Right. The "orgy of non-killing" was in reference to the statement of the Catholic bishops saying that they were for a seamless garment. What the bishops meant by that is, they were against all violence to persons; that included war, capital punishment and abortion -- abortion certainly a matter of debate as to whether the fetus is a person, but there is no debate that it has a genetic imprint and a human life form. And the bishops were calling that a seamless garment, and I said that the left has a garment with a hole in it, that they're anti-capital punishment, anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons, but they make this huge exception on the killing of fetuses and leaving it totally up to individuals rather than having a social consensus that, as they do in Europe. In France, abortions are allowed, but the community, the state, the government, the people remain intellectually and morally opposed to abortions, but they make exceptions. That's what I'd like to see now; I'd like to see a social consensus that abortion is a morally drastic act and that while I don't want to tell anybody what to do, I look forward to a consensus that is different from the one we have now. It used to be thought that it was natural to have slaves, and we got beyond that. It used to be considered natural right up until our century to conduct torture as part of police investigations, but we've moved beyond that and I think we can move beyond this casual attitude toward abortion, too.
LAMB: Let me ask a question you may not want to answer. Can a person make a living writing one column of 800 words a week?
LEO: I do, so I can say it can be done, yes.
LAMB: You don't do anything else?
LEO: I do other articles, but this is my main job and it's what I do. I try not to just react to the news; in other words, if I wrote two columns or three columns a week, I think I would have to react quickly to the news. In other words, the events would dictate what I said in reply. Because I write only once a week, I am able to devote time to making it an essay, a real extended analysis of some subject with a lot of data boiled down into 800 words but really amounting to a different kind of statement. In other words, mine is a once-a-week statement; it should be held to different standards than three-a-week statements because no one can do anything in depth three times a week. You just don't have the time.
LAMB: What day do you write?
LEO: On Thursdays because it's the last possible day. I'm a deadline writer.
LAMB: What's the hour of your deadline?
LEO: I don't want to say this now because my editors would guffaw. I'm supposed to have it at 1 o'clock on Thursday.
LAMB: How often do you make that deadline?
LEO: Often, but not all the time.
LAMB: Why are you a deadline writer? What's that mean?
LEO: Just as Sam Johnson said, "No one but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money," I think no one but a blockhead wrote anything except with a hammer over his head to get it in at the last minute. I'm very deadline oriented. It's probably a neurotic flaw, but it does get me going.
LAMB: Where do you write?
LEO: I have an office. There's a U.S. News office at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. It's the New York bureau and a few other people for New York.
LAMB: If we were to follow you around during a seven-day period, getting ready to write on that Thursday, what would it be like?
LEO: You'd find me stodgy. I stay most of the time at my desk. I try to do a lot of it by phone. I travel some, probably not enough, but basically my theory is, you can make the phone sing beautiful music to you if you call a lot of people, and you can do it a lot faster than you can by traveling. And I read a lot of things. I think if you're going to pontificate every week, you better read a lot of newspapers and magazines to keep up with what's going on. I try to do that.
LAMB: Are you happier reading people you agree with or people you disagree with?
LEO: I think both. A lot of people read me because it makes them angry, and they write me and they say, "I really hate your column, but I read it every week." So that's exactly what you want; you want people who love you and you want people who disagree with you vociferously both following you because if you're just getting positive mail, you're just singing to the choir. I feel the same thing. I read people all the time that I don't agree with, and I like to do it.
LAMB: In your week, what do you look forward to reading the most every day?
LEO: What publications?
LAMB: Either what publications or what books or what kind of reading?
LEO: I like the Washington Post; I read the Economist; I like Commentary; I look forward to the New Republic every week. I'm all over the place. I read the L.A. Times; I read nine newspapers and a lot of magazines, whatever I can get my hand on, because you never know what article is going to set you off and what little item is going to produce a column.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite writer or favorite writing? -- just the writing part of it, not necessarily what they're . . .
LEO: No, I don't have any one favorite. I like graceful writing; I like people who get to the point quickly in an 800-word column because I have to do that, too.
LAMB: What does Washington look like from New York today for you?
LEO: It's a physically beautiful town, if that's what you mean. Every time I come down here I'm stunned at how beautiful it is.
LAMB: No, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the politics.
LEO: Am I being evasive? I guess I was never tempted to go into political reporting so I look at Washington as a one-industry town like Hershey, Pa., and if you're in that industry it must be a great place to live. But I'm not in that industry; I don't write about politics; I'm not a politician. The country is not obsessed with Whitewater; the country doesn't care what Roger Altman said. The culture here in Washington hangs on that every word, but the country doesn't. I don't disparage the political culture -- someone has to watch it and it's important, but it isn't what I do, so Washington to me is a good thing but it's out of town.
LAMB: How much impact does it have on the country?
LEO: I think it has a lot of impact; it's just that it's one part of the culture. I'm interested in a different part of the culture. Washington seems to me to be filled with people who think that if we have a social problem, the only way to get rid of it is to pass a bill in Congress, and I don't think the country thinks that way. I think a lot of our problems are too different, too intractable to be solved in a political culture concentrated in one town.
LAMB: We left out Part 4 earlier. It's about politicians -- "If I Could Be Like Newt."
LEO: That refers to Newt Gingrich's set of buzzwords. The Republicans actually sent around a list of a hundred words you were supposed to toss like condiments into your stew, throw them into your speeches to get the audience to think warmly. I think "anti-union" was one, "pro-flag" -- you could throw them in in any order at all like an "anti-union, pro-flag, pro-something-or-other cause." It was a very strange memo that went around. GOPAC it was -- GOPAC, Republican.
LAMB: A hundred and thirty-four words and phrases, buzzwords -- "courage," "moral," "children," "candidly," "caring," "choice," "passionate," "decay," "collapse."
LEO: Of course, your opponents are described as "collapsing anti-flag destructionists" or something.
LAMB: You have written about Hillary from the pulpit and the politics of meaning, crisis of meaning.
LEO: I have two essays in there about Hillary. I'm respectful of Hillary, particularly since the Republicans tried to demonize her so early. I thought that was just unseemly. I mean, here's the first first lady with a law degree, and we have to dump on her right away because she's not staying home. I thought that was all wrong. So my two essays disagree with her. I think she's, by my standards, wrong on a couple things, but I try to take her arguments seriously and deal with them as issues rather than be part of the "get Hillary" movement.
LAMB: I see a column here that involved us -- the Bob Kerrey joke from New Hampshire, and it was all about a joke that no one ever really saw because we had recorded it and it was off-the-record conversation and didn't air it. The reason I bring it up is that you found the joke somehow.
LEO: I had people describe or tell me the story, and when you know the story, it isn't anti-woman or anti-lesbian at all. It's simply anti-Jerry Brown. The idea that people are going around crying or holding their head about this damaging ant-gay, anti-woman joke when actually it was an anti-Gov. Moonbeam joke -- it wasn't devastating at all, and to think that Clinton's whole future hung on the fact that he might have laughed at this non-funny joke seemed to me silly, so I got a column out of it.
LAMB: What would have happened if he had laughed at the joke?
LEO: One of the feminists in Little Rock said that he was complicitous in a hate crime if he had laughed at this joke. This is the PC mentality in action, you see. If you smile or laugh you can be brought up on charges equal to those who make the defamatory remarks, so he said he hadn't smiled and the crisis passed.
LAMB: What's it like to be "Marioed"?
LEO: To be Marioed is to be called up at random by Mario Cuomo and to have to listen to this booming aria that goes on for seeming like hours. I got a column out of it because he called me at great length to not ask for a retraction on something he thought I had gotten wrong, and I said it was a really wearing experience. Oddly, Richard Cohen in the Washington Post did a column very similar to this a couple weeks ago in which he said that he had been called seven times in two days by Mario, and while he knows that isn't the record, it was a personal best for him.
LAMB: If you had to pick a politician today to write about -- and I know there are not many political columns in here -- who would you pick? Who would be your favorite person?
LEO: I don't have any favorite politicians. I respect Mario. I don't think his 12 years in New York have been a triumph, though. People are trying to fish around and find out, discover, some achievement they can trumpet now that he's running for reelection. He's a very bright, honest, progressive guy, but I don't associate him with any great breakthrough. Even in the integration crisis in Yonkers, it seems to me he sat on his hands, and it was a time for some moral leadership there and he was nowhere to be found.
LAMB: The person I saw you quote the most of the politicians was Bill Bradley.
LEO: I admire Bradley. He seems to me to have courage, and I liked what he wrote about race. He wrote an honest speech about race in which he said that it isn't just racism, it's behavior too, and let's not kid ourselves and see only one half of the problem.
LAMB: You also mention John Kerry.
LEO: I don't follow him as much as I do Bradley. Bradley's one of our local senators. I don't really follow Kerry as much.
LAMB: When you sit down to write, is it hard or easy for you to write once you get to that deadline?
LEO: Oddly, it's both. Anybody who writes feels that it's fun or it's fun having written or it's a joy to get certain phrases in there, but sometimes it's a grind. It's there every week whether you feel like it or not, and you feel you have to give your best and it's not always easy. Sometimes your opinions change in the middle; that's happened to me a couple times.
LAMB: Go back to your experience of being taught by Marshall McLuhan, and apply what you're doing now, writing a column in U.S. News & World Report. Based on what you see, would you still have this opportunity in 20 years?
LEO: It will be an opportunity, but it will be an opportunity such as the one we have now. It will be a talk opportunity. One thing that you learn when you write a column is that if you're ready to be interviewed on a subject, it takes no preparation at all. You can just go right out and talk. If you're going to write and have the words frozen in print and torn out and Xeroxed, it takes a good many hours to get ready for that so that I think that while talk culture is the future, the print culture that we're going to lose -- it's just going to be a big loss because the opinions, when they're framed in print, are more carefully stated and apt to have fewer mistakes and fewer outrages in them because you can see the copy, because it's compressed and goes through an editing process, whereas talk -- you just go right out on the air.
LAMB: Will you lose the print altogether, do you think?
LEO: I don't think so. I think print is going to become like Latin was when the national languages rose in the Middle Ages, that instead of being the common tongue like Latin was right up through Aquinas and the Scholastics, that Latin became more and more the in-group language of an elite. They spoke French and German and Dutch and Spanish, but they still read books in Latin. Latin has faded away; I mean, now it's basically a little bit of Virgil in schools, and pharmacists know a little bit, and Latin has faded away. So I think print will be a permanent minority culture of educated people.
LAMB: This is what the book of essays looks like -- Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police by John Leo. We thank you very much.
LEO: McLuhan wrote books, by the way. On the way out, he wrote books. Thank you.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.